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The Ukrainian Army has made dramatic strides in the last few weeks. Ukraine’s tactical commanders have outfoxed their Russian counterparts, and by issuing a feint towards the south the UA has been able to earn substantial gains in the north of their country. The impact of these efforts have been compounded by the steady stream of weapons and equipment from the United States and NATO partners- More specific accounting of the tactical maneuvering is being done by The Institute for the Study of War.
These successes, though important, do not suggest that the war is on the verge of coming to an end. Russian forces still occupy some 34,750 square miles of sovereign Ukrainian territory. More than that, despite prior public statements that Russia was conducting its “special military operation” in order to liberate the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, Russian collaborators in those regions have promoted referendums are expected to be held between September 23rd and 27th that aimed at integrating those regions with Russia. These machinations have coincided with a (domestically very unpopular) plan to mobilize some additional 300,000 reservists and conscripts.
These referendums, if passed, would provide Russia with the manufactured casus belli that Ukraine and NATO forces are carrying out attacks within Russian territory, and might therefore allow for a more obvious mobilization effort. Former Russian President Damitri Medvedev is quoted as saying that the referendums were important for their contributions to the, “systematic defense” of Russian territory, and continued that, “an encroachment on Russian territory is a crime.”
Of course, Mr Medvedev is correct- encroachment on Russian territory is a crime. So too is the invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory. Similarly, for all of the reasons that the Ukrainian government should have worked more closely with French and German mediators to follow through on the terms of the Minsk Protocols, the Russian government cannot, without international condemnation, ignore its ethical and legal responsibility to prevent the spread of dishonest information based upon the results of a obviously illegitimate vote.
While the United States cannot prevent Russian state-media’s attempts at double-speak, American leadership can do much to clarify its own messaging.
In the face of an increasingly multi-polar world (despite Russia’s displayed incompetence and what it might imply about China’s true capacity) the United States and its allies have a delicate line to balance. Little can be done to quell the endless rumors about what was or was not agreed to between Secretary of State James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev about the future of NATO expansion in 1990- this is no excuse for a lack of clarity about NATO’s potential expansion and mission moving forward.
Similarly, there should be no denying that honest calls for nationhood should be facilitated through a legitimate democratic process. There should also be no denying that the long recognized corruption that marred the Ukrainian government was not somehow cleaned out with the onset of Russia’s attempted invasion. Pretending otherwise makes the United States and its allies appear dishonest and weakens our bargaining positions on other key international issues.
Even more than these things, however, there should be no credible doubt that the humanitarian catastrophe brought on by the Kremlin’s aggression is not in any way justified by Ukraine’s governance issues or slowness in adhering to the Minsk Protocols. International bodies and co-signatories provide a far more effective and ethical way of resolving disputes, and the integrity of those bodies and treaties is dependent on the good-faith and trust of their participants. As such, it is important that the United States and its allies participate in good faith- even in the face of an obviously bad actor like Vladmir Putin.
While it is important that we take the time to recognize, and celebrate, the success of Ukraine’s Army and partisan forces in resisting Russian aggression, it would be long sighted to limit American and NATO armed support to those which can be used for substantively defensive purposes. Towards this end, NATO members should continue to provide the Javelin anti-tank systems and Byractar drones that have proven so effective in slowing the advance of Russian armored columns. Mobile artillery units with a range that surpass their Russian equivalents like the M142 HIMARS have played a dramatic role in disrupting Russian cross-river movements, but ensuring that these NATO provided weapons are not used to strike targets within legitimate Russian territory could prove pivotal in preventing further escalation of the conflict. Similarly, it should not be taken for granted that Ukraine be extended NATO membership in the aftermath of the conflict- such an action would give credence to the idea that the United States resisted Russia’s obvious attempts at empire largely for the sake of extending its own more subtle empire.
In addition to these direct efforts, the United States and its partners should look for non-military means of strengthening their hand against bad actors into the future. These efforts might range from promoting election integrity domestically to diversifying energy sourcing. They most certainly include pushing for increased public awareness about key foreign policy issues and the continued re-staffing of the diplomatic corps as a way of peacefully promoting the cause of Democracy and Liberalism beyond our borders.
While the conflict in Ukraine will likely rage on for months to come, there is some real chance that historians will consider the push that took place in mid-September to represent the turning point of the conflict. In the event that this is true, the United States, Ukraine, and all other concerned parties should do just as much to facilitate a successful peace as they will certainly do to bring about an end to the war.
Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association. The opinions expressed here are his, and not necessarily those of the Association.